Cliff Lee Trade Talks Destined to be Tricky


Before Cliff Lee even steps on a mound at Spring Training, many are already trying to quantify what his trade-value is. Given the low expectations for the Phillies in 2015, it makes sense. Given Lee’s injury-riddled 2014, it seems like a strange discussion to have.

In year four of a five-year/$120 million deal, the former Cy Young award winner was limited to just 13 starts (81.1 innings) due to two extended disabled list stints for an injury to his left elbow. Lee didn’t have surgery on the elbow that ultimately ended his season in early August.

Even when he did pitch in 2014, traditional stats suggested that Lee really struggled. He was 4-5, with a 3.65 ERA, certainly far below what is expected of him. Advanced stats, like his 2.96 FIP and 1.7 WAR would suggest that while he didn’t have a banner year in 2014, he was a victim of bad luck. Perhaps that is why many feel that Lee could bounce back in 2015, despite being a 36 year-old coming off an elbow injury, with over 2,000 innings on his arm.

Still, a bounce-back season probably wouldn’t be a return to Cy Young caliber Cliff Lee. Steamer projects Lee to throw 173.0 innings and post a 3.54 ERA, with a 3.42 FIP in 2015. I’m not sure Lee can’t do better in the ERA category, but given that I’m not sure he can stay healthy enough to pitch the projected amount of innings, trying to project Lee is a real crapshoot at this point.

Trying to project Lee’s trade value, and the interest from potential suitors will also be difficult. Lee is in the final guaranteed year of his deal, in which he will make $25 million. Prior reports have indicated that the Phillies would eat money to move Cliff Lee, but whenever the Phillies seem willing to do that, they normally expect a substantial prospect in return (see: Jonathan Papelbon to Brewers talk).

If it was simply the $25 million for 2015, trading Lee and taking on money really wouldn’t be asking all that much. But his 2016 option complicates things. Lee has a 2016 option that carries the following terms, per Spotrac:

  • Option becomes guaranteed if Lee 1) is not on the disabled list at end of 2015 season with injury to left elbow or left shoulder, and 2) has 200 IP in 2015 or 400 IP in 2014-15
  • The 2016 option comes with a $12.5 million buyout

Given that Lee only threw 81 innings last season, throwing 400 innings over the course of 2014-15 is impossible. Coming off of an elbow injury, having only thrown 81 innings a season ago, it’s less than likely that Lee would throw 200 innings this year. But it isn’t impossible, and if he’s traded to a contender, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to use him as a workhorse down the stretch if it meant making the playoffs. If he does reach 200 innings, which he did every season from 2008 to 2013, his $27.5 million vesting option would become guaranteed.

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Lee also has a partial no-trade clause, which he used to his advantage last year when blocking all teams except the Marlins, Mets, Nationals, Braves, Rays, Astros, Padres, Twins and Indians. Lee figures to keep the four other NL East teams off the blocked list, while taking teams like the Padres and Astros, who conceivably could be interested in him, off the list. This way Lee, who has stated that he expects this to be the final contract of his career, could force teams to guarantee his option for 2016 to approve a trade. While he has had stability the past four seasons, Lee’s been a rental player enough times in his career that he probably won’t want to go somewhere if he isn’t locked into playing at least a year and a half with the club.

And if all else fails for Lee, the Phillies or his new team would decline his $27.5 million option for 2016 and be forced to pay him a $12.5 million buyout to either retire or go pitch elsewhere.

So no matter what, Cliff Lee is going to get paid. He wants to go to a winning club, but so does Jonathan Papelbon, and that hasn’t stopped him from digging his heels in to have his 2016 option guaranteed.

So there would be a rather long-list of obstacles facing the Phillies in trade-talks for Lee. Him performing at a high level in the first half of the season would help to eliminate some questions and spark interest in him, but there isn’t any way of getting around that he will be 37 late in the year, and had a reoccurring elbow injury last season.

Some have suggested that because of reports that Lee isn’t a good clubhouse guy, the Phillies wouldn’t ask for much of a return for him. Again though, the front-office’s handling of the Papelbon trade talks suggest that wouldn’t be the case.

Indeed, the obstacles facing Lee’s trade-value will likely put him in a similar boat with Jonathan Papelbon and Cole Hamels, one where the organization would like to move him to an interested club, but the interested club and the organization can’t agree on fair compensation.